Don’t be skeptical of skeptics

I’ve been off-line for a couple of weeks so this is a very belated response to Frank Swain’s gig at Westminster Skeptics at the beginning of August.

Frank Swain, aka SciencePunk, no longer calls himself a skeptic. This isn’t because he’s become less of one. On the contrary, he described himself as being “born of the skeptic movement” and “hugely enamoured” with it. But he has, in recent years, distanced himself from the “skeptic community” because he doesn’t want to be associated with its attitudes and behaviour.

It seemed a little odd when, towards the end of his talk, he introduced what he described as the most important part of it with the revelation that as a “white, middle-class, college-educated, science-background man”, he wasn’t qualified to talk about it. As it turned out, that was one of the few things Frank said that I agreed with. The topic at this stage was “who we invite and make space for in our community”, the community in question being the people who write or talk or campaign in any way on the kind of issues that skeptics are concerned about; the one Frank is hugely enamoured with but doesn’t want to be associated with.

Before he said that, we’d heard much about how macho, aggressive, arrogant, intolerant and hostile skeptics are and we were treated to a list of quotes of the “quacks are stupid” variety that he’d lifted from various skeptic blogs. We also heard how we were doing things wrong, from what he described as our “evidence or fuck off” approach to debate to our refusal to engage with people’s “scary” emotions. Even the format for skeptics meetings in pubs was “intimidating”. He didn’t pull his punches — here’s a typical quote:

…I don’t want to shoot my load too soon but there is something very important I want to say, which is that arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly…

It was obvious that, however enamoured Frank might once have been, he doesn’t love us anymore. Now, in the “most important part” of his talk, he told us of lots of other people don’t love us either. People like women, mothers, humanities graduates and members of the Green party. As for ethnic minorities, “We do fail to take an interest in them, don’t we?” he said mysteriously, before moving swiftly on.

On women he was more forthcoming: women aren’t comfortable coming into “this very aggressive environment”, he claimed. He’d even had emails from women telling him as much.

I wish to goodness those women would email me so I could tell them to get a fucking grip!

As many readers of this blog know, I was not born of the skeptic movement myself. Rather, I am a born-again skeptic, having previously spent many years as a female humanities graduate and occasional user of altmeds, which never failed to disappoint me. I owe a debt of gratitude to the many skeptics who helped me on my path to enlightenment. Having spent some years trying to be all nice and polite and empathic when engaging with promoters of pseudoscience and opponents of vaccines, only to be repeatedly sneered at and insulted while my arguments — whether facts or anecdotes — were ignored, I can’t begin to describe how liberating it was to find all these blogs by people who weren’t afraid to call a spade a spade or quacks stupid.

As for skeptic meetings, I don’t recognise the “very aggressive environment”, Frank spoke of. One of the many ironies about his presentation is that, having attended many different skeptics meetings, I’ve only ever felt uncomfortable twice and both times were during his talk.

He made much of how important it is to think about how you would explain an issue to your mother. I agree. My son is six foot plus and nearly fourteen stone but I’d still give him a slap if I heard him use such a graphically macho expression as, “I don’t want to shoot my load too early”. Is this how Frank talks to his mother?

Worse was to come (no pun intended):

It’s only by understanding mothers and understanding that they are swayed by stories not facts…

Oh dear! It’s been a while since I felt as patronised as I did at that moment. Mercifully, most skeptics don’t say things like that or I wouldn’t touch them with my husband’s lightsaber.

Much of what Frank said came across as either bizarre or gratuitously insulting. Take, for example, his view that that arguing from the basis of facts is ineffective and cowardly. Frank accuses skeptics of fetishising facts and of having “an obsession that you fight based on the factual accuracy of your idea”, which isn’t effective, he says, because people prefer stories and we have to “emotionalise” issues.

OK, I’ll concede there is some truth in that last point, which is why I write as I do. Just look at the colourful and interesting way I am telling the story of Frank’s talk, for example. And I make frequent use of stories of people suffering and dying at the hands of evil or stupid quacks in my blog posts. One of my favourite skeptic websites has an abundance of such stories. Funnily enough, the invariable response from my detractors is to dismiss them as anecdotes.

But what is “cowardly” about arguing from the basis of facts? Here’s Frank:

When you go in with a foregone conclusion and you know your numbers are right, you’re being particularly cowardly and very pedantic in my opinion and the worst thing about that is that you make no attempt to understand where that other person might be coming from.

I think what Frank is trying to say here is that the danger of being sure of one’s position is that we might fail to empathise with the other person and why they take the position they do. If that’s what he meant then it’s a fair point, which applies equally to those we argue against. It probably applies to most people arguing about most things they feel strongly about.

That Frank should make this point in such a hostile and aggressive way by calling it ‘cowardly’ struck me as another of the ironies about his talk. In any event, he is wrong. It is not cowardly to base an argument on facts and the reality is that people respond to both facts and stories, depending on where they’re at.

Here’s Frank on mothers again:

They hear these conflicting stories and above all else they want the best for their kid. They want to protect their child at all cost and it’s only by understanding this that you are then going to convince them that the MMR is the right way to go and you cannot do that with this arrogant attitude that you are right based on facts.

Rhetoric that sounds persuasive when spoken looks pretty empty on the printed page doesn’t it? How silly is the suggestion that skeptics don’t understand that mothers want to protect their children at all costs? And that one shouldn’t try to present them with the real facts because that’s “arrogant”? What are we supposed to do instead? Frank didn’t tell us.

It so happens that back in the mid-eighties when I was having my children, there was a big scare about the whooping cough vaccine. I was swayed by stories of the jab causing brain damage and I was equally swayed by stories of the miseries and dangers of whooping cough. The anti-vaxers caused me a great deal of anxiety and even less sleep than I was getting already with a young baby. So what did I do? I went looking for the bloody facts and I went on looking until I found them (not so easy in those pre-internet days). As a result of what I found out, both my children got all the jabs they were supposed to. I wish to goodness I’d known some of the facts that I know now before I’d been persuaded by people’s anecdotes to waste any time or money trying out quack therapies.

So I wasn’t persuaded by Frank’s argument about arguments. I felt his comments about blogging were a bit loopy as well. After pointing out — presumably for those of us too dim to realise it — that there’s a limit to what we can do on a blog and that a lot of people don’t come to the internet for information, Frank went on to say that the approach we choose to take and the tone in which we do so “narrows down our audience”. This is undeniably true. People who don’t want to read a skeptic perspective on anything will not read skeptic blogs. The danger, argues Frank, is that we only reach the people who think the same way as us; that we’re just an “echo chamber”.

It’s a curious suggestion that people only read stuff they think they are going to like and agree with and I invite anyone who thinks there’s any truth in it to look at the lower left hand column on this blog and peruse some of the comments that have been made about it — and me — by my readers.

In his introduction Frank had said,

The most powerful thing I can do as a writer is change someone’s mind, shape the way they see the world, change the way someone thinks…

I agree. What Frank failed to do in his talk is explain why he thinks skeptic bloggers aren’t doing this because I know from personal experience that they are and that skeptic bloggers can take a large part of the credit for the recent groundswell of support for skeptic causes from people who’d hitherto taken little or no interest.

My most fundamental disagreement with Frank is over his idea that anyone who promotes a sceptical approach to pseudoscience is a member of the ‘skeptic community’ and answerable for the crimes of any other member of said community. He referred to the recent twitter storm over Gillian McKeith during which somebody apparently called her a “stupid fucking cunt”.

What does it show about a community when we allow somebody to say something like that and they feel comfortable in an environment saying someone is a stupid fucking cunt?

Allow somebody?

I don’t buy into the notion that we are a ‘community’ in any meaningful sense of the word. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing I have in common with most other skeptics is an opposition to the dishonest promotion and public funding of altmed. Being a skeptic is a small part of who I am. Amongst other things, I am also a feminist. I write from a feminist perspective but I’m not in any ‘feminist community’. In common with other secularists, I am opposed to religious privilege but nobody talks about a ‘secularist community’ and I don’t mind standing shoulder to shoulder with feminists and secularists who use quack remedies when we’re campaigning for abortion or against faith schools.

When I see the nasty things that other secularists sometimes say about those with any kind of religious faith, I can get quite offended on behalf of the highly intelligent, thinking and liberal but religious members of my extended family. But I am not responsible for how other secularists behave — they have nothing to do with me and I don’t see why I should feel any different about other skeptics. I don’t defend the way a bunch of people I don’t know behaved over Gillian McKeith on Twitter but I can understand the anger behind it. It wasn’t because McKeith is an enemy of scepticism, as Frank suggested, but because of what she did and what she had done before she did that. And if “all” that’s happened as a consequence is that she has stopped promoting herself on Twitter, as Frank lamented, then that sounds like a result to me.

Frank did make the point that skeptics aren’t formally organised and therefore lack the infrastructure of the environmentalists. Nevertheless he constantly referred to skeptics as if we were bound together by something more than a shared interest in promoting an evidence-based approach and critical thinking.

We are a community; we know the same people, we have the same experiences, we read the same things…we have our own particular gods and monsters and we elevate these people who are our gods up to this level where no-one is allowed to criticise… anything that someone like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh or Evan Harris says is beyond question. There’s this prevailing attitude that you don’t speak out against these top people.

Hogwash. Yes, there are a number of guru-like figures for skeptics but only because they have achieved a high profile by saying and doing things we agree with and because they have been the targets of bullying and abuse from people who stand for what we disagree with. But where does this idea that any individual skeptic wouldn’t speak out if he or she disagreed with anything any of these prominent figures said or did?  Because I certainly would. I am an admirer and frequent defender of Richard Dawkins, for example. Dawkins is said to be a guru for hard core atheists like me. Yet the only blog I’ve written about him was to argue that he was wrong and I’ll do the same favour for Ben or Simon or anyone else in a heartbeat should they give me cause to.

I think that’s very dangerous, it’s not a situation I think we should be in…We like to think of ourselves as critical, sceptical people,

So says Frank. Well that’s OK because that situation doesn’t exist outside of his imagination. The reason we think of ourselves as critical, sceptical people is because we are and I hope that nobody was so demoralised by Frank’s talk (which was notably short of constructive suggestions) that they’ll do anything differently.

Here are all the other blog responses that I’m aware of. I think most, if not all, are more sympathetic than mine.

48 thoughts on “Don’t be skeptical of skeptics”

  1. I’ve been an atheist all my life, even after exploring lots of religions, I was born into the movement, I guess.

    I’m also female. Being female and capable of being a mother doesn’t mean I can’t be a skeptic. I have had mental health issues which have meant that I DO appreciate how easy it is to become vulnerable to scams and “miracle cures”.

    I also appreciate that for parents, the main source of information on anything is the general media, and that because the general media’s coverage of science is often abysmal, it is very easy to believe horror stories like the MMR scandal.

    I’ve argued myself that skeptics need to think carefully about how they approach communicating facts and scientific knowledge to people who are vulnerable to getting caught up in health scandals and believing in altmeds.

    It’s not about winning an argument, in these cases, it’s about sharing the truth and avoiding unnecessary risks people suffer at the hands of snake oil peddlers.

    I wasn’t terribly impressed by the Gillian McKeith thing, but that’s just my take. She had done plenty in the past that might warrant it, and her behaviour toward a twitterer was hardly exemplary.

    I agree with you. I certainly feel that I’m aware that people other than white, rich middle class men exist, because I don’t belong to that group. Most of what I’ve seen of the skeptic movement has been an honest desire to protect people who are vulnerable from harm. It’s not about ending the movement, I think it’s about how we communicate the truth to people affected.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment, Joely.

    On the McKeith thing, personally I thought some of the comments made in the first few hours after her appalling behaviour towards that poor hapless tweeter were pretty funny and well-deserved in the circumstances. But I was horrified to see people were still at it two days later. I wish they had resisted the temptation to pile on. It was ugly but that’s human nature, I suppose.

  3. Skepticat said:

    “As many readers of this blog know, I was not born of the skeptic movement myself. Rather, I am a born-again skeptic, having previously spent many years as a female humanities graduate and occasional user of altmeds, which never failed to disappoint me.”


    “I wish to goodness I’d known some of the facts that I know now before I’d been persuaded by people’s anecdotes to waste any time or money trying out quack therapies.”

    There ARE quack alt. therapies, of course there are. And there are some lousy therapists – sometimes because they’re beginners. There are also quack medications, lousy doctors and stupid medical or surgical procedures. If I broke my leg though, I wouldn’t be saying to the ambulance driver “No, no – take me to my Reiki Master!” because I don’t dismiss all doctors, surgeons and medical personnel on the basis of some of the clowns I’ve met in the past. I’m prepared to give each new bod the benefit of the doubt, since earlier disappointments/failures were nothing to do with them personally.

    You tar all so-called “quacks” with the same brush, and as a successful hypnotherapist with a very good local reputation even within the medical profession itself, I find that offensive and way too subjective.

    However, it is understandable if what you say is true about your own personal experiences. Cynicism is an angry, vengeful condition born of hurt and disappointment. Skepticism isn’t, it is a genuinely open-minded position seeking evidence. Evidence comes in many forms – but not to the cynic. Cynics are on a mission, and will dismiss as much evidence as they can if it is not helpful to their cause.

    Sometimes a client will tell me that they previously went to a hypnotherapist and didn’t get the success they sought at the time. Within two minutes (about five questions) I’ll know the reason for that, and it won’t worry me at all. However, if that client had decided to feel all hurt and ‘cheated’, they might have concluded after that first disappointment that they “tried hypnotherapy but IT didn’t work”. Rubbish. There is no IT. There is a client, an issue and a therapist, and if that particular therapist wasn’t very good, or wasn’t very good with that issue, then there could well be a client and an issue still at the end of it. Just as anyone would prefer to have an excellent GP or an excellent dentist, an excellent hypnotherapist can do far more than a beginner, or a dabbler.

    I’m not defending all of “” on that basis though, and I’d be interested to hear more about the therapies you actually tried.

  4. Oh, change the record, Chris. You’ve told me enough times what a wonderful, successful hypnotherapist you are and I don’t doubt it.

    FYI, the therapies I tried were the stuff sold on in high street chemists like homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. The only quack I’ve ever had an appointment with was a chiro. I was not ‘hurt’ by any of these therapies. I just considered them a waste of money – and I didn’t even spend that much. So spare me the psychoanalysis. I am not a cynic “born of hurt and disappointment” – that is a typical quackish response and it’s an ad hominem.

    The reason I call such therapies ‘quackery’ is because they are either (a) scientifically implausible and/or (b) there is no good evidence to support the claims made by the promoters and practitioners and quite a bit of evidence that undermines them.

    And that’s all there is to it.

  5. @skepticat

    Another great post

    @Chris Holmes

    Where you begin, “There are quack alt. therapies, of course there are. And there are some lousy therapists – sometimes because they’re beginners. There are also quack medications, lousy doctors and stupid medical or surgical procedures…” That looks like a Straw Man argument. Surely Skepticat only complains about quack therapies – she doesn’t actually imply all alt therpists are quacks. (Although she may actually think that.)

    Again, where you say, “You tar all so-called “quacks” with the same brush, and as a successful hypnotherapist with a very good local reputation even within the medical profession itself, I find that offensive and way too subjective” I reckon that too is a straw man.

    As you also state you are a succesful hypnotherapist, I just had to have a nose at your website. I found it interesting that you don’t provide much in the way of evidence to support the conditions you say you can treat. (I don’t count anecdotes as evidence). As far as I’m aware, systematic reviews suggest hypnosis doesn’t help smoking cessation. (Have to admit that surpised me, as smoking cessation seems to be the staple of most hypnotists.) I also couldn’t find much positive evidence regarding depression and hypnosis (found this qoute from 1998: There is a dearth of investigations into homeopathy for depression from Ernst, Rand, & Stevinson, 1998). Also nothing much on anxiety: “The current RCT evidence is insufficient to support the use of hypnosis for treating anxiety.” (Primary Care and Community Psychiatry, Volume 12, Issue 2 2007 , pages 49 – 63 ).

    I am aware there is significant good evidence regarding hypnosis and pain. As I would assume there is for relaxation and pain.

    One last thing, Chris – how do you define hypnosis?

  6. I am already well aware of what you all (on this side of the ‘debate’) DON’T count as evidence. My clients of course expect me to live up to what appears on the website, and I do. If I didn’t, they would want to know why and as I deal with these people face to face – unlike yourselves, I’m not just talking the talk here, I’ve spent the last ten years working with thousands of real people. So although you have to read about the work of other people (like Ernst) to have any views, I actually have expertise in that field (unlike Ernst).

    How do I define hypnosis? If you really had read into the website, and not just “had a nose” at it, you wouldn’t need to ask.

    I have to say, if I had read the kind of material you seem to believe is telling you the truth about hypnotherapy, I’d never have bothered with it and I’d have missed out on the most wonderful and fulfilling work I’ve ever been involved with – so excuse my contempt for Ernst, Cochrane group et al. If you really want to know – which of course you don’t, but it’s entirely your loss – you’re looking in the wrong place.


    “FYI, the therapies I tried were the stuff sold on in high street chemists like homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. The only quack I’ve ever had an appointment with was a chiro.”

    Wow, you really know your stuff about the entire alternative field! HA! Sounds to me like you were bullied into your cynical position and made to feel like a fool for even entertaining the idea such things could help. Since I’ve never tried Bach remedies, never been to a chiropractor or tried any homeopathic remedy ever, I’m not even in a position to suggest that they would be useful for anything, but if that’s the extent of your personal experience I don’t think it was “evidence” either – but that didn’t stop you mentioning it, did it?

    Anecdote – worthless.

  7. Chris,

    Thanks for the reassuring predicible response, mate. Actually, I do not claim to know my stuff about “the entire alternative field”. I write about what I have discovered through my own reading and research and any reader is at liberty to disagree with my findings. Funnily enough, instead of doing that, they mostly do what you do and try to taunt and belittle me instead, thereby illustrating their lamentable inability to present a coherent argument about a subject they care passionately about. It seems that their ability to reason is inversely proportional to their passion for the subject – and, of course, if they’ve invested a wealth of their time and money in the hope of making a living out of it, they will feel very passionately indeed.

    Now, read the next bit carefully:

    I did not mention the fact that I occasionally used altmeds as ‘evidence’ of anything. I mentioned it because it always confounds the widely-held assumption that I, as a skeptic blogger, am writing about something I’m not “open-minded” enough to try. I am open-minded and I have tried it. In the case of homeopathy, which is the one I usually write about, I have also read the Organon and many other sources and even attended a homeopaths conference. It’s fair to say that I know a lot more about homeopathy than most hapless users of it, yet I don’t see those who say they swear by it being criticised by quacks for not knowing enough about it. Funny, that.

    That said, I have never suggested that my own personal experience with homeopathy or anything else is reason enough for people not to try it themselves. What I say is ‘look at the evidence and decide for yourself’. As you would know, if you’ve ever read my blog without your blinkers on.

  8. “I have to say, if I had read the kind of material you seem to believe is telling you the truth about hypnotherapy, I’d never have bothered with it and I’d have missed out on the most wonderful and fulfilling work I’ve ever been involved with – so excuse my contempt for Ernst, Cochrane group et al. If you really want to know – which of course you don’t, but it’s entirely your loss – you’re looking in the wrong place.”

    Wouldn’t it be more consistent with such [shockingly “endarkenment”, anti-scientific] views to just not include – along with the ‘evidence’ you do value – an example of that contemptible, wrong place, kind of material (your Evidence E2) when it happens to appear to support your beliefs?

  9. @Chris,

    Look into my eyes, not around the eyes, into the eyes. Relax. And Sleep, sleep, sleep.

    Hypnosis really isn’t as effective as you suggest. You will change your webpage so it is not going to be misleading. Ernst and Cochrane Group are good sources of proper evidence. Anecdotes are crap.

    Three, two, one, eyes wide open and wake up.

    That’ll be fifty pounds, please. See you next Tuesday for another session.

  10. Andrew, if I gave out an award for the most entertaining comment ever on this blog, it would go to you. LMAO!

    (And as I was being exceptionally thick over the typo, I’ve now made everything as if it never happened).

  11. “The reason we think of ourselves as critical, sceptical people is because we are”

    ..and long may you remain so, for it is scepticism that has driven the course of human development, the ability and desire ‘not’ to accept the status quo just because we are told “it is the way it is”.
    Reading through your posts is refreshing and a pleasure, it is nice to see such a well balanced arguement being postulated and grown, I will be back as I feel your style and content has much to teach.
    @AG excellent last comment, though I am sure Chris does not much appreciate it! £50 LOL!

  12. I don’t know about a follow button but the feed button is bottom left hand corner Indyanhat. Sorry, I know it’s a daft place, I’ve no control over its location but thanks anyway for your kind comments.

  13. Oooo I see it now thanks S!, youre blogrolled now anyway so I will see your new posts come up.
    I don’t know about ‘kind’ comments I speak as I find, there are many no doubt think I am too forceful (profane) but well I only write about what tee’s me off mostly! and as I said I could learn much from your style!
    See you around the place…

  14. When I speak with someone one-on-one I am much more aware of their sensitivities. I try to empathize as best I can and draw out their beliefs and discuss them. Sometimes the person is uninformed and sharing facts goes over well, other times people are convinced by their own perception of results that no amount of RCT evidence will prevail.

    Whereas speaking with a group, it is hard to achieve such a rapport and there is a tendency to be a bit more dogmatic. “I feel your pain” and other trite/worn statements do not establish rapport.

    I think the latter situation is what leads to criticism of the aggressive nature of skeptics. When faced with wretched, dogmatic statements of “true believers”, it is hard not to attack stupidity. It creates a cognitive dissonance in skeptics to hear bulls**t, and one gets upset.

    There seems to be consensus that narrative is a better communication vehicle for relating points of view and facts. This is Skepticat’s style and I enjoy her periodic blogs. They have provided me with insight to the interactions with purveyors of alt. meds. I have never tried them, as I was wary of them since was a teenager, so have only a scientific understanding of the attraction and danger of alt meds for the credulous.

    I utterly despise the alt med practitioners who pull someone in and suggest that continuing treatment is necessary; perhaps a lifetime or until you insurance runs out. Society suffers too much from the unintended consequences of rules and laws. To have them based on unprovable assertions of “truth” has even worse consequences. That is what makes me aggressive, I fear the effect of decisions based on non-science.

  15. From Frank’s Speech:

    we have our own particular gods and monsters and we elevate these people who are our gods up to this level where no-one is allowed to criticise… anything that someone like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh or Evan Harris says is beyond question.

    This is, to borrow a phrase, utter bollocks, and it shows that Swain either hasn’t been paying attention recently or is being quite dishonest. Look no further than the critiques of Dawkins over the handling of his website forums and the Bill Maher affair, or over Phil Plait for his “Don’t Be a Dick” talk, or over frigging Randi and his stupid, stupid comments about Climate Change. If there are gods in the skeptical community, Randi is chief among the living ones, and the global warming kerfuffle shows that the legions of skeptics will descend on him as well, given reason.

  16. It is touching to see how much you all love and appreciate each other for like-minded ignorance.

    “Andrew, if I gave out an award for the most entertaining comment ever on this blog, it would go to you.”

    Andrew, your clueless notion of what “hypnosis” is differs not one jot from the average moron journalist, so of course you think that’s hilarious and so does the Septic Cat. Yes, you really deserve a comedy award. You have a rare talent.

    You are all very naive about the way “scientific evidence” is manufactured, but I think you’re pretty comfortable and complacent in your babyish trust in the powers that be, so go back to your mutual admiration activities and don’t worry your little heads about it. It is interesting, though, to see what happens in the Church Of Science camp when one of your own number starts to raise questions about prevailing attitudes: pretty much the same thing happens to any scientist who admits to having an open mind about psychic abilities or UFOs.

    I think a good deal of this so-called skepticism is just fear really. Fear and denial. Oh, and of course ignorance.

    Jim R:

    “I utterly despise the alt med practitioners who pull someone in and suggest that continuing treatment is necessary; perhaps a lifetime or until you insurance runs out.”

    Jim, I would entirely agree with that if there are demonstrable cases where it holds true. FYI hardly anyone has ever used insurance to claim back the cost of a hypnotherapy session in my ten years’ experience. Since I do most of my work in one, two or three sessions (very few people need more than that to get the success they describe on my website) any hypnotherapist who SUGGESTS continuing treatment over a long period would be a fraud.

    Skepticat, I know you would love to believe you’re open-minded and maybe you once were, but I work with skeptics all the time and believe me, you are far closer to cynic than skeptic. When you are talking about flower remedies and homeopathy though I suspect you’re right but I don’t KNOW that. I have little doubt, but I don’t KNOW it. That’s an open mind. Whatever the case, that has no bearing whatever on other therapies in the alternative field. My enthusiasm for hypnotherapy is based entirely on the results I get. Nothing else.

  17. Chris

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your coming here coming here and flinging out the same old tired insults. By doing this, you confirm what I keep saying about my detractors being unable to reason their way out of a paper bag. But if you want to anyone round here to take you seriously, you need to learn how to make grown-up arguments.

    Instead of trying to psychoanalyse me and attributing to me opinions that I have not expressed, why don’t you just take something I’ve said and tell my why you think it’s wrong but see if you can do it without being personally insulting. (Yes, I know it’s difficult for you but give it your best shot.) For example, if I understand you correctly, you don’t think I should be saying that homeopathy is quackery even though you suspect it is because you don’t KNOW that it is. Let’s look at that argument:

    P1. Skepticat says homeopathy is quackery.
    P2. Chris suspects but doesn’t know for sure whether homeopathy is quackery or not.
    C. Therefore Skepticat isn’t open-minded and Chris is.

    This is the essence of what you have said. Can you spot the flaws?

    In fairness, you may not have read all of my blogs on homeopathy and you may not be aware that I have come to my conclusions after very thorough research. I have at some length pointed out the problems with the theory underlying homeopathy and have invited homeopaths to respond but they never do. They just leave their quackolades and run away.

    Alternatively, you may just think that even when the totality of evidence overwhelmingly points to homeopathy being quackery, there’s still a chance that the evidence is wrong. I expect you’ve heard of people being so open-minded that their brains fall out. I certainly wouldn’t include myself in that category. No, as I said before, I write only about what I have found out as a result of extensive research. I only call therapies ‘quackery’ if I think there are good grounds for doing so and I can say what these grounds are. There are many alternative therapies that I’ve never written a word about and that includes hypnotherapy. I couldn’t care less about hypnotherapy so I really don’t know why you feel the need to be so defensive about it on this blog.

    By the way, it makes no difference to me whether you think I’m a skeptic or a cynic. Labels are not important to me; the exploitation of vulnerable people by woo merchants is my only concern here. I’m sure you know that many people have suffered and died needlessly because of their faith in various quack remedies. I’m sorry that you don’t seem to care about this but I do and that is why I continue to write this blog in spite of all the abuse from people who make a living out of conning the gullible.

    Finally, Andrew’s comment was obviously a joke at your expense and I understand why you might have found it difficult to rise above it. But if you’re going come here and dish it out, you need to be able to take it, mate.

    Aw ra best

  18. This week’s email of The Skeptics Society has an article by Raymond Eve. that looks at the differences in worldview between two fairly opposite groups: Creationists and Wiccans. Eve says,”… these two groups were deliberately chosen with the expectation that they would be both extreme and diametrically opposed in their choices of epistemological rules for knowing.” Article at:

    Eve concludes that socio-cultural factors are a significant factor in paranormal beliefs. Further people from rural vs. urban settings tend to have conservative vs. modernist, respectively, approaches to understanding reality.

    I think the sharp contrasts between these groups offers insights into the world view of skeptics. Using the rule of return to the mean, I will attempt to summarize an average skeptic. There is probably no skeptic who would hold to 100% of these observations. Skeptics bridge this cultural divide and it makes us hard to understand by people from either of the cultures. Familiarity with the article will help with the following assertions.

    1. Skeptics are scientific cultural traditionalists in desiring significant proofs for changing some part of their worldview. I think the perceived cynicism is rather an interpretation by others of the desire to preserve the insights (understandings) achieved with so much difficulty. Skeptics can review the research of many people and see where the consensus leads, but they do not accept things on the basis of authority alone. Charges of Scientism as a religion just don’t wash.

    2. Skeptics are comfortable with a broader list of acceptable social activities as are cultural modernists. There isn’t any proof to reject activities that are neither harmful to us as individuals or to society. This does not imply anything about the personal choices of any skeptic, rather the acceptance of those choices that may be made by others.

    3.+ More descriptors can be abstracted and I would welcome them.

    I think this provides understanding of the cultural presets of skeptics and persons with whom they may clash. The skeptic mindset is achieved with great difficulty. One has to overthrow a lot of cultural dogma and search for a basis for a new worldview. This involves a lot of work over a long time. When a skeptic is “reborn”, it is like a light has been seen. It is exciting. New skeptics should be forgiven for acting as proselytes. They are the source of some friction with the “established” order and disorder. I think the views are frightening and disturbing to some. Because of the journey to skepticism, I guess that most “new skeptics” are older.

    There is no central authority to which skeptics subscribe. There is not a list of agreed dogmas. There is consensus on a large number issues, but squabbles over many others. The attacks on skeptics as a class represents to me the reaction to a new, growing, disorganized group that is questioning the basis for the very existence of some activities in society. In the future I predict that there will be a significant growth in the ranks of skeptics and a corollary rise in alarm by entrenched interests in society.

    I really look forward to critiques of this position, even if they demolish it. That embodies the essence of skeptical debate. Ad hominem comments will be dutifully ignored.

    1. Thanks for that interesting link and your comments, Jim.

      Plenty of food for thought and, on first reading, I find myself in general agreement with your analysis of born-again skeptics like myself. ‘Born-again’ seems an apt description, given that I once prosletysed in favour of altmed but – in the late 70s at least – I encountered a general resistance especially from people who were less educated than I am and who would simply respond that whatever I was recommending they might try sounded like a load of crap. People seem to be naturally sceptical about stuff that sounds implausible or which directly contradicts what they already know e.g. that dilutiing something makes it weaker. But suspicion and disillusionment with conventional medicine makes one more receptive to the marketing of altmed. Amongst my generation of British women, there seems to be a lot disillusionment and from our ranks are drawn many practitioners of altmeds. One of my early blogs was on this very subject.

      On the charge of cynicism, I’m not sure how widespread the accusation is from altmed people. I’ve only ever heard it from Chris and I put it down to a knee-jerk reaction from someone who has too much invested in an alternative therapy to be able to see past the fact that I write disparagingly about altmed and actually engage with the arguments I make about it.

      It may surprise you to learn that I have a bit of sympathy with the ‘scientism as religion’ view, in the sense that I don’t think science has the answers to many philosophical questions but I know people who do and they do seem a bit zealous.

      I agree that there will be a significant growth in active skepticism. It is still a nascent movement and that’s why I found Frank Swain’s criticisms more annoying than anything else. They weren’t a constructive contribution, in my view.

      Sorry about the rushed and random nature of these comments but thanks again for your comments. I’ll be giving them more thought.

  19. @Chris

    You’re quite right – I don’t really know what hypnosis is. As far as I know, to-date there is no consensus. So I guess I could argue you don’t really know what hypnosis is either. And since you earn a living from it, what does that make you? 😉

    I also suspect you may be unable to objectively evaluate how effective your hypnotherapy is, as to do this you would need to follow up all of the people who come to see you (at different points in time). All you have a few little anecdotes, which are of little value.

    Do you think that all of the claims on your website would stand up to scrutiny? I might add that I am happy to accept that hypnosis (or relaxation) can help with pain management as there is evidence and sound underlying rationale.

  20. Andrew:

    You’re quite right – I don’t really know what hypnosis is. As far as I know, to-date there is no consensus. So I guess I could argue you don’t really know what hypnosis is either. And since you earn a living from it, what does that make you?”

    I have no confusion at all in my understanding of it, which makes me a better-than-average hypnotherapist. And there IS a consensus, but it’s an old-fashioned one (circa 1950s) and still involves some degree of misunderstanding. Believe me, there is NOTHING mysterious about hypnosis or hypnotherapy, but there is a public concept of it which is entirely wrong. The erroneous concept is that hypnosis is “something somebody does to you” (as in ‘hypnotizes’) i.e. a treatment. This notion is gleaned from watching Stage Hypnosis (not hypnotherapy, which most people have NEVER seen)and being taken in by the illusion that the ‘hypnotist’ has some sort of power or influence over the ‘hypnotized’ person. The assumption that accompanies this notion is that ‘hypnosis’ is some mysterious altered state that you (Andrew, Skepticat… anyone) have never experienced, which is rubbish. Trance states are normal and we all drift in and out of them all the time.

    Your mention of relaxation is typical of the virtually non-existent understanding of hypnotherapy in the scientific world, and beyond. Relaxation is therapeutic in itself, being the opposite of stress, but here’s the thing: relaxation is not even required in the hypnotherapy process. It is an optional extra we usually throw in because it makes people comfy, but it has no significant role in any change process. Any discussion of the subject which centres on relaxation is a discussion between novices and dabblers, not experts on hypnotherapy.

    The significance and usefulness of trance states can be summed up thus: in non-trance states the Subconscious mind pays little or no attention to what is going on around us; it leaves it to the conscious mind to deal with that. So if you are talking to a person who is not in trance (e.g. in ordinary conversation, a doctor’s consultation or a job interview) you are talking to the conscious mind alone, and therefore any changes resulting from that would be limited to the small amount of daily behaviour which is operated under conscious direction.

    If the person is in trance – any old trance, depth of trance and depth of relaxation are nearly always irrelevant – the information / case for change / would be heard not only by the conscious mind but the Subconscious also. This dramatically increases the range of potential positive adjustments, since all bodily reactions, instant reactions, emotional reactions, feelings and habitual behaviour are all under Subconscious direction.

    2 crucial points in truly understanding hypnotherapy:

    1) The common notion that a person is “more suggestible” because they are in trance is utter rubbish. The same misunderstanding can be found in the word “susceptible”. The fact is, if the person is not in trance at all, then the subconscious mind never hears the suggestion for positive change, so of course it does not respond.

    2) If the person IS in trance, then the suggestion will be HEARD. However, the Subconscious mind of any individual is a law unto itself and does not have to change a damn thing, whatever is suggested. I have never encountered any scientific investigation into hypnosis where these facts have been understood! The assumption always seems to be that if you get the person relaxed enough, or deep enough into trance, then they will respond to whatever suggestion you care to pitch at them! What nonsense!

    For any suggestion to be accepted and acted upon, it is essential for that individual to recognise the advantage in that change for them personally at the time the case for change is presented. The therapist’s task is to make the case well, and present it in a manner that is wholly acceptable to that particular person.

    The word ‘hypnosis’ doesn’t even mean anything. Hypnos is a Greek word referring to sleep, and there is no sleep in hypnosis or trance states. Unfortunately we seem to be stuck with it, just as we are stuck with the antics of the stage hypnotists, who are really just illusionists.

    Skepticat: You may yet prove not to be a cynic. To some degree I have an open mind on the subject! Cynics are so certain that they are correct in what they already believe that they are done with any learning on that subject, and will only pay attention to material which appears to confirm their beliefs. There is usually some bitterness about the matter on their part, and they rarely know much about that subject in reality.

    Skepticism on the other hand is a cautious, somewhat doubtful position but without a particular axe to grind – in other words skeptics are quite happy to abandon the cautious doubtful position if they subsequently find it to be unnecessary caution.

    You called me “some jumped-up quack of a nicotine denialist”. From a position of knowing WHAT about the subject, exactly? You didn’t engage with the argument, you don’t even know what my argument about nicotine is! For a person who claims to have little interest in labels, you’re pretty quick to slap them on other people without knowing anything much about the subject. Can’t speak for homeopaths, but I am NOT a quack and my detailed arguments about nicotine have received some very favourable reviews from the people who actually read them.

  21. @Chris Holmes

    “I have no confusion at all in my understanding of it, which makes me a better-than-average hypnotherapist.” Bit of a logical fallacy or two going on there! (i.e, you’re talking rubbish man!)

    I should accept there is consensus about a definition of hypnosis because you say there is? Like heck! Where’s the evidence!

    Do you have any sort of qualification in clinical psych? Given soe of the stuff you calim to be able to acheive, I’d have thought it essential.

    I’m well aware that hypnosis is not necessarily something that someone does to you (that’s why self-hypnosis is possible).

    You talk about a state of trance as if it’s some real objective state (like sleep). Do you have a definition of ‘trance’. And do you have any references to reliable literature to support your ‘2 crucial points’?

    Lastly, you cite New Scientist (1992) for supporting the smoking cessation aspect of hypnosis. I suggest you go look at this open access review: Hypnotherapy for smoking cessation
    Abbot NC, Stead LF, White AR, Barnes J (

    HEre’s the plain langauge summary:
    Does hypnotherapy help people who are trying to stop smoking
    Different types of hypnotherapy are used to try and help people quit smoking. Some methods try to weaken people’s desire to smoke,strengthen their will to quit, or help them concentrate on a quit programme. The review of trials did not find enough good evidence to show whether or not hypnotherapy can help people trying to quit smoking. So it looks like your claim on your website is actually a bit dodgy!

  22. I read Chris’ 8/9/10 post and went to Wikipedia to read a bit about hypnotherapy. The most important thing I learned is that stage hypnotism (Mesmerism) and hypnotherapy are completely separate and unfortunately share the same name, hypnosis.

    Hypnotherapy works best if the patient is willing. It is also 1000s of years old. There was a summary of trials from Victorian times onward that were positive as to effects.

    Reading Chris’ numerous, word posts was becoming tedious, but I went in search of damning material. It was really thrilling that my skeptical nature showed be how interesting hypnotherapy is. My perception had always been colored by equating it with Mesmer’s,”animal magnetism”.

  23. Andrew, you can accept or not accept whatever you choose, I really couldn’t give a toss. The suggestion that a qualification in clinical psychology would make me better at what I do is absolutely laughable. I would challenge any clinical psychologist to beat the kind of results I get with my methods, they wouldn’t come anywhere near it unless they were also trained and very experienced with hypnotherapy. Your assumption that clinical psychology is a superior discipline is simply the blind, ignorant prejudice of someone who knows nothing about the subject.

    Don’t quote Cochrane bullshit at me, virtually every bit of official misinformation I ever read about hypnotherapy came from that direction so I know what they’re about even though you obviously don’t.

    Jim’s quite right that hypnotherapy and Stage Hypnotism are utterly unconnected, but actually Mesmerism is something else again. To be fair to Mesmer, he was not a fraud but he misunderstood WHY he was getting the exciting results he got with his therapies. We now know that the notion of Animal Magnetism was fanciful – he was actually performing a rather quirky form of hypnotherapy which was probably helped a good deal by the force of his own personality and formidable presence, as well as general excitement about his very fashionable Paris clinic hype and some group hysteria during the gatherings enhancing the responses and the atmosphere in which they were generated.

    To be sure of avoiding all that, the best way to do hypnotherapy proper is in peaceful, comfortable one-to-one consultations.

  24. @Chris Holmes

    Your first two paragraphs in the post above are brilliant! Clearly you do give a really big toss and also feel very insecure when challenged by anyone with some knowledge of EBM. And so you should! Crikey, man, how can you possibly dismiss resources such as the Cochrane Collaboration and clinical psychology? I can only guess that you have no understanding whatseover regarding the logic of how to evaluate the effectiveness of what you do. For example, how do you know what kind of results you get once someone has gone away. Do you assume they are satisfied if they don’t return?

    Do you have a definition of ‘Trance’, by the way?

  25. Frank Swain has wisely distanced himself and his ideas from the growing hysteria, innuendo and psuedoscience at the heart of the “official” sceptic movement, characterized by bloggers such as you.

    For example, attacking MD’s for their dedication and utilisation to the growing field of Homeopathy, a field which has proven itself beyond all reasonable doubt to be efficacious, you have demonstrated the characteristic tendency of the pseudoscientific “skeptic” to jump to conclusions, take positions and condemn before acquiring any semblance of knowledge on the topic in question, as well as proclaiming allegiance to a flawed set of laboratory science standards which even conventional medicine itself does not pass, and which remains completely specious as the supposed means of confirmation of “evidence” based medicine. On the basis of this lack of knowledge, you then undertake wild sweeping assertions about Homeopaths preying on earthquake victims, as though the dedicated Doctors attempting to help in any way they can are somehow involved in deliberate deception to fool the “gullible”. How dare you impugn the motives of such Doctors, what a disgraceful position. You are a disgrace to real skeptics.

    Well, too bad, the attempt to stop NHS funding for Homeopathy fell flat on its face, it backfired, and rightly so because people caught on to the idea that a few loudmouth village idiots who talk big about “science” in fact knew hardly anything about the field that they were condemning and were, in fact, repeating a lot of innuendo that they had heard from other “skeptics”.

    This is not real skepticism, it is not even close. Is it any wonder that Frank Swain wishes to disassociate himself from this sort of pretension?

  26. Note to regular readers: It’s interesting that so many of the homeopushers whose cages I rattle are unwilling or unable to engage coherently with any of the questions I raise about homeopathy in my many blogs on the subject. Instead they come here, have little tantrums of abuse, and depart.


    Let me pick that dummy up for you, sweetie. You might try keeping it in your gob if you can’t say anything intelligent.

  27. Andrew, you are an innocent. Bless. You still believe in the integrity of the Cochrane Collaboration and EBM. I have visions of your little lip trembling when you first found out the truth about the Tooth Fairy and Santa, and I find I just can’t do that to you again. This despite the rather tempting thought that maybe, if I said “I don’t believe in EBM!” loudly enough, Edzard Ernst might die. Not that he has any credibility any more anyway.

    FYI: Trance states (there are lots) are mental states in which your Subconscious mind is paying close attention to what is going on around you. Daydreaming, automatic repetition of habitual behaviour and shock states are all examples. The conscious mind is awake during these moments but is not directing behaviour or making any decisions, the Subconscious is. Hypnotherapy is, quite simply, pleading a case for change whilst the Subconscious mind happens to be listening.

    Skepticat, that last “dummy” comment doesn’t really “engage coherently” with the content of the post you are rubbishing, does it? One law for you…. Yeah, yeah we know: “It’s not worth etc etc” …still, not you at your best, now is it? Kind of thing you hear in the playground just before it all kicks off.

  28. Chris, don’t be silly. You should know perfectly well by now that I am happy to engage with anyone who comes here and tries to engage with me – like you, for example. SB did not make any attempt to engage with me and the content of his post is anything but coherent. It’s just a cathartic tantrum and it got the response it deserved.

  29. To suggest that I or anyone else could ‘engage coherently’ with SB’s post is pretty silly actually.

    As for tantrums, I don’t go and have them on other people’s blogs then run away.

  30. Hi Stu,

    Well done for getting laid at last night. I sense it was the first time and I understand why you feel the need to boast about it. Boys will be boys as they say, even if doing so on my blog makes you look a bit sad. :-).

    Now, which bit of my blog post do you disagree with and why?

  31. Stu said: “At least I can get laid when feeling low.”

    Yes, you can buy anything these days, apparently.

    Now, as Skepticat asked, what precisely was junk and ignorant?

  32. vaccination is like your understanding of homeopathy, bullshit on stilts with no EBM, why do you still believe it? Has it something to do with a previous post where skepticat said: ‘millions of doses and years of experience tell us it works?’

    How does that not equate with your ‘critique’ of homeopathy?

    Hypocrite springs to mind, sorry but I can’t see any difference

  33. Hi Skepticat, have you noticed that polio in India has been renamed as NPFP which is indistinguisible from Polio and twice as deadly. There are more cases where more of Bill and melinda’s poison has been forced on children, 60,000 cases.

    When Bill and Melinda get taken to the war crimes tribunal for mass murder I wonder if they will call scum like you as a witness?

  34. I’m sure you’ve got a source for this claim (The Telegraph India seems to think that Polio is about to be eradicated in India, and the WHO seems to agree – do you think they’re fooled by a simple renaming?), and you’re going to cite it. Right?

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